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October 18, 2021

Should unpaid internships be allowed?

A backlash is brewing against the unpaid internship with many issues against this type of employment coming to light.

It's been recently discovered that if you're an unpaid intern in Ontario, you aren't protected by health and safety laws, according to the Toronto Star. While the provincial government is currently reviewing and reconsidering the law, there's no timeline on when any changes could be made.

This adds to a growing discontent expressed about unpaid internships. In Vancouver, there was a backlash against the Fairmont Waterfront hotel for offering an unpaid internship to bus tables. Another recent Toronto Star story showed that hospitality interns did the job of a cleaning lady during their internship. While two former Bell interns filed a complaint with allegations that the company broke labour laws when they weren't paid for the work they did.

Many young workers taken on unpaid internships with the number of them in Canada ranging from 100,000 to 300,000, according to the CBC. Young people have a tougher time landing a job, especially after the recession, and it's no wonder that they're trying any possible way to gain experience to jumpstart their careers.

With some older workers forced to delay retirement since their savings took a hit during the recession, they've filled entry-level jobs that were typically filled by youth. The Canadian average of unemployed youth was 13.5 to 14.5 per cent, according to report released by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, with joblessness more common in Ontario.

"There is only one in two Ontarians between the ages 15 and 24 who have paid employment. What that is, is the worst numbers we've seen since Statscan has kept these numbers since 1976," the author of the report told the CBC

Some argue that unpaid internships offer valuable experience that they otherwise wouldn't have gotten and the work sometimes leads to a paid position, which can be disputed, according to an article by Atlantic magazine. Others argue that the experience is exploitive when unpaid interns are doing the work of paid workers and when they're also putting in long hours that can be expected even after they land a paid position.

In 2011, a  22-year-old Albertan student crashed and died while driving home after his internship. His family is convinced the accident happened because he fell asleep at the wheel after working long hours. They've recently started fighting for more regulation for unpaid internships.

It turns out that the growing negative sentiment towards an unpaid internship is happening worldwide, especially after a German intern for the American bank Merrill Lynch in the U.K. died after pulling three subsequent all nighters. With Europe's youth unemployment hitting staggering heights, it's no wonder that they're fed up with working for free.

This summer, a New York federal judge ruled that Fox Searchlight Pictures violated minimum wage and overtime laws when it used unpaid interns on the movie production of Black Swan. This ruling could spell the death of the unpaid internship since companies might not want to risk hiring an unpaid internship.

Meanwhile, it remains to be seen whether that ruling triggers change in Canada and whether that's decided to be good or bad.

Do you think unpaid internships should be allowed?

Josephine Lim, MSN Money



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Gordon PowersGordon Powers

A long-time fund company executive, Gordon Powers now heads up the Affinity Group, a financial services consulting firm. Gordon was a personal finance columnist for the Globe & Mail for many years, has taught retirement planning...